Twenty years ago today, John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as UK Prime Minister. I can remember where I was when it happened, in a small office in the students union of a Northern university watching her speech from the steps of Number 10. Around me were cheers of delight, it would be an understatement to say that students were not known for their support for the Conservative party in the Thatcher years, and these were largely Northerners from mining and industrial towns hit hard by the policies of her government. To them it was a foregone conclusion that Major's government would be swept out of the way by a Labour landslide, it came as a shock two years later when Neil Kinnock threw it all away in an excited bit of election-eve crowd-pleasing in Sheffield.
I don't think British political life has created anyone in my lifetime so divisive among opinions of their legacy as Margaret Thatcher. Conservatives love her for breaking the power of the trade unions, privatising state-owned industries and selling council housing while Labour supporters revile her for the catastrophic decline in traditional manufacturing industries under her premiership, the ever-widening social gap and of course the Poll Tax. I had to think very carefully to only pick three examples for each. In the couple of decades since her departure we've had a Labour government that doubled the successor to the Poll Tax and did nothing to help the unions or narrow the social gap, the privatised industries have not all been a success, the sale of council housing arguably sowed the seeds for our current housing crisis and despite it all we still have a manufacturing sector. Make up your own mind who is right about her legacy.
Of slightly more interest in this sphere is her legacy for women. I've seen more than one examination recently of what a Sarah Palin White House might mean for women were she to be elected, and it's possible a parallel1 might be found in Margaret Thatcher. The BBC examined what the Thatcher government did for women back in 2005, and concluded that though by not promoting women in her Cabinet she hadn't done as much for women as she could have, by reaching the position in the first place and holding on to it for so long she made the previously unthinkable into the entirely possible. Previously women such as Maggie or Labour's Shirley Williams had to make do with token positions such as education secretary, as I write this the British Home Secretary is a woman, Teresa May.
Twenty years ago my student friends would have all been incensed at the then recently introduced student loans. back then they were just a top-up, no tuition fees for another decade. I seem to remember there were protests, sit-ins even. Nothing changes, does it.
1Only a loose parallel mind, I'm sure even the most ardent Labour supporter might see Maggie as a Safer Pair Of Hands than Palin. Quick test: imagine the Big Shiny Red Nuclear Button under the finger of the former Member for Finchley or under that of the former Alaskan Governor. Enough said.